The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Roadmap for entry into virtual village

Chennai, Aug. 26: Village folks, get set to log in.

If all goes according to plan, every village in Tamil Nadu will have at least one Internet kiosk by the year 2005.

A project to increase rural connectivity is all set to take wings under the initiative of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, through one of its “incubated” research and development companies.

Official sources said the impulse to bridge the digital divide has come from chief minister Jayalalithaa, who wants to “transform Tamil Nadu into the IT gateway of Asia by 2006”. The brandname for the kiosks is ‘Chiraag’.

The Chennai-based n-Logue Communications, a research and development company established under the aegis of the Telecommunications and Computer Networks (TeNet) Group of IIT Madras, will work in partnership with the state government in this project. The TeNet group, which is involved in working out cost-effective solutions for rural communications, is led by Ashok Jhunjhunwala, head of the department of electrical engineering in the IIT.

Jhunjhunwala, who made a joint presentation at the IIT campus with P.G. Ponnappa, CEO, n-Logue, said the plan for this year was to cover 10 districts — Madurai, Cuddalore, Coimbatore, Kancheepuram, Theni, Tirunelveli, Salem, Nagapattinam, Erode and Tiruvallur.

According to Vivek Harinarayan, the state information technology secretary who is co-ordinating the project from the government’s side, n-Logue would be the operational agency. The state, he said, would provide support through relevant departments like education, agriculture and rural development.

The kiosks, sources said, would be operated by local entrepreneurs who are expected to provide villagers with a variety of services.

Users can avail the services of a Cordect wall-set with accessories like a telephone and a multimedia personal computer. Cordect is the technology part that supports simultaneous telephony and 35/70 kbps Internet connection.

Jhunjhunwala and Ponnappa cited examples from other villages to illustrate how the project could benefit villagers. They narrated how Suganthi, a kiosk operator in T. Ulagaipitchampatti village, sent the picture of a 15-day ladies finger to the Madurai Agriculture College.

The ladies finger was found “diseased with yellow” and the agriculture college was able to take quick remedial steps to “save the crop” which, in turn, saved the village Rs 2 lakh. The cost of sending the information, Ponnappa said, was only Rs 20.

In another village called Attapattu, a photograph of a limping chicken was sent to the veterinary college, which traced the cause to a paralysis.

Another kiosk began with just e-mail facilities. Two months later, “we launched voice and video mail”, Ponnappa said, which demonstrated to the villagers the power of the Internet.

The two also pointed out that a large number of people from these rural areas were working in Gulf countries and would be thrilled by the quick and cheap communication.

Moreover, the range of facilities could be gradually increased to include “daily astrology”, information on passport, visa and on-line application for certificates from government departments.

Ponnappa said their “business model” was Cable TV and PCO connections that involve partnerships with a local businessman for access centres, termed as local service providers (LSP). According to the plan envisaged, n-Logue would set up the access centres. They would provide wireless connection over a 25-km radius, which can typically cover 300 to 400 villages.

The n-Logue CEO said that while the kiosk operator would need to invest up to Rs 50,000, the local business partner, who would team up with n-Logue to set up the access centre, would need to invest approximately Rs 12 lakh. “We are working with state financial agencies to tie up loans for LSPs,” he added.

Ponnappa claimed that even the smallest kiosks could earn Rs 5,000 a month and could break even in the first year itself.

Besides Tamil Nadu, such kiosks have been set up in Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, Shahpura in Rajasthan, and Baramati in Maharashtra.

The project aims to instal close to 10 lakh ‘Chiraag’ Internet kiosks, covering 85 per cent of India’s rural areas, in the next four to five years, Ponnappa added.

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